Thursday, April 21, 2011

When art becomes political

In his brilliant little book, Ways of Seeing, John Berger focuses on the social and political construction of art and the extent to which social values are reflected. Art matters in part because it offers some commentary about society, past or present. Public art takes on an even more significant role since it is thrust before a wider audience and is not confined to the small numbers visiting art galleries nor secluded in private homes. Bermuda is now benefitting from an increase in public art, mainly sculptures, and each conveys a different message a distinct message coming from the art's sponsor, reflecting their own social values.

The rendering of Johnny Barnes at Crow Lane has been around for many years, is meant to reflect the spirit of Bermuda, and is seemingly embraced by many. To formalise an image of a black man as smiling and jovial in such a one-dimensional message reduces its essence to the superficial and is a nod back to our oppressive past. It is almost as if nothing else about Johnny Barnes matters other than he makes some people happy during their morning drive into Hamilton. In one of the ironies of history, this image is located at the very site the courageous Sally Bassett was burned at the stake. This is akin to dancing on sacred ground.

The image of Sally Bassett on the Cabinet grounds tells a story of a bold, courageous and defiant slave woman. Its dimensions are meant to instill awe and force you to look up to her. The sculpture is brutally honest since it shows exactly what the old elite did to her: tie her up, place her in the middle of a pile of wood, set that wood alight and send her to a painful death. It is a sad sign of where we are today when segments of the community can decry this recognition and yet celebrate Johnny Barnes. Bassett is the only slave in our recorded history who took a stand against the pernicious system that was slavery and should be lauded by all. Every other country celebrates those men and women who fought evil and oppression, and so of course, so should we. 

Adjacent to the City Hall car park is an abstract sculpture commissioned to acknowledge the fight against racial segregation. In sharp contrast to the power of Sally Bassett, this image is devoid of passion and it is devoid of meaning. As art it is beautifully crafted, aesthetically, but it tells no story and it has no connection to history. It seems clear the backers of this public art wanted no controversy and this they have achieved. With this accomplishment, however, we are left with a well designed public space where the art has no relevance. Works of art are produced with a purpose in mind. The purpose of this one is not readily discernible.

HSBC recently unveiled its contribution to public art with its “Against da Tide” sculpture on Front Street. This art is an obvious exercise in ambiguity, tempting the public to read into it what they wish. It is symbolic with powerful imagery; and because it is not meant to be accurate historically by design, it can be interpreted on a number of levels: historical commentary, economic, political, social or business progress today. One of the world's largest banks, HSBC, has made a decision to remain neutral on all matters yet not shy away from provoking thought. Anyone who has seen their expansive advertising campaigns at numerous airports worldwide will find this approach effectively, different ways of seeing to be consistently applied with their branding.

Art is not disconnected from society but an important part of it. It helps to convey messages and can help shape views. We need more public art in more public space to break up the bland uniformity of commercial development. When we get public art with an important message we can appreciate it even more.

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